Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2007 Issue

Rose's Books and the Cistercians

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The Antiphonarium Cisterciense.


by Renée Magriel Roberts

As booksellers, we've certainly all experienced moments of serendipity -- the chance meeting that results in a wonderful buy or a still better sale, or the good luck of being in the right place at the right time. Our networks of relationships often lead from one good contact to another opportunity.

But during this past summer, something quite extraordinary happened to us at Rose's Books, something that appears to have been the fruit of seeds sown many years before. Something you'd never think would happen to a semi-reclusive scholarly couple, selling entirely on the Internet.

It began with a telephone call from a monastery of cloistered nuns, the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (the Trappists). The sister who contacted us thought, or had heard, that we might be able to help her sell their monastery's choir books. Why us? Our business was named after my doctoral dissertation (as well as a wonderful aunt), "The Clock and the Rose", which centered upon the change of mind that occurred in Western Europe in the fourteenth century. The "Rose" is the rose window in the great cathedrals, and also refers to the Virgin Mary.

Now, the sister had no way of knowing that as part of my doctoral work I had to engage in a practicum, and since I could not return to the Middle Ages, I spent the greater part of 1998 taking voice lessons and studying Gregorian chant.

So, although I really did not know much about this order and its choir books specifically, I certainly had an interest in, and a history of studying, the Rule of St. Benedict and Gregorian Chant. The sister sent us pictures and some more information, and we agreed to go to the monastery to view the books.

The Abbey sat on a hilltop quite close to the state highway system, tucked away in trees and fields. Once the summer home of a major industrialist, the property now housed 48 sisters, who had come from all over the world to live and to pray, following the Rule of St. Benedict.

The books were enormous, elephant-folio sized, bound with brass borders, bosses, feet, and exquisite sacred hearts. Printed throughout in red and black, the chant notation was dimensional to the touch, and included exquisite illustrations and capitals, some extending the entire length of the page. Although the books had been printed in 1947, they seemed very unusual. The monastery was divesting the books because the Latin liturgy had long since been changed to the vernacular, and they now use smaller, modern, more easily-held versions that did not strain their backs.

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